Although most people’s attention is on the here and now of Covid, we cannot lose sight of the need to plan for what comes after the pandemic. The rollout of the vaccine gives us all immense hope and optimism that life will return to a sense of normality in the not-too-distant future and we can begin to put the horror of the last year behind us. The world that will emerge at the other side of Covid, however, remains ours to shape.
The Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) forecast that 2.6 million jobs will be lost because of the pandemic, and we are facing the gravest economic situation in generations. Important research from Sheffield Hallam University shows that towns like Barnsley were in a weaker economic position before the pandemic began; they have been hit hard by the economic consequences of Covid; and will likely take longer to recover than more affluent parts of the country. I’ve often said that the brutal reality is that, despite the Government’s rhetoric of levelling up, the toxic combination of Covid and a decade of austerity is serving to level us down. We are in a precarious economic position similar to the early 1990s and the height of the pit closure programme – which ravaged many of our mining villages and from which we are still trying to recover. It’s a simple fact: the process of rebuilding and renewing our economy must have Barnsley at its heart.
That starts with jobs. The primary focus for government – local, regional and national – must be on creating jobs and averting as much as possible the spectre of mass unemployment. Here in South Yorkshire, we’ve got an ambitious and achievable plan to build back better. Our £1.7 billion Renewal Action Plan would create 55,000 job and training opportunities, 3,000 new apprenticeships and drive the regeneration of our urban centres. Creating jobs is the first order of business, but it must be supported by action to ensure that residents are able to access those jobs. That means investing in transport connectivity so people can get where they need to go, and it means making best use of our £36 million Adult Education Budget to support skills and training opportunities. And we’ve got to break down barriers to employment. Our innovative ‘Working Win’ programme is leading the way in supporting people with physical and mental health challenges to get into and stay in work. Working Win offers one-on-one coaching to manage health conditions; debt and benefits advice; and practical support to engage with employers. For those who the programme helps – both workers and local businesses – Working Win has been a lifeline in incredibly challenging times.
Of course, the work we are doing in South Yorkshire needs to be supported by national government delivering on their promise of levelling up the North; but the evidence we’ve seen so far is that levelling up is happening in name only. Sources of funding that we have used to support vital projects have been scrapped, replaced instead by recycled pots of money with opaque mechanisms for getting resources to where they are needed. Instead of a system that enables local leaders to determine where funding should be allocated, regions are being forced to compete against one another for an ever-dwindling share. What’s required is a fundamentally new approach, one that respects our devolution settlements and enables Mayors and local leaders to invest in our communities’ priorities – better transport connectivity, investment in jobs, skills and training, and improving the life chances of our people and communities.